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Updated November 10, 2012

Type of Drug:

Theophylline is a methylxanthine, a type of bronchodilator used in COPD treatment to relax the smooth muscles of the airway and suppress their hyperresponsiveness to airway irritants.

Indications for Use:

Theophylline may be used in addition to your COPD inhalers and other medications, such as oral corticosteroids. It is most commonly used to manage symptoms associated with COPD and other respiratory ailments.


You should not use theophylline if you have a known sensitivity to theophylline or ethylenediamine.


Laboratory theophylline levels should be monitored closely for signs of toxicity, as toxicity may occur even when the drug levels are within a therapeutic range.

Theophylline should be used cautiously in neonates, patients with cirrhosis of the liver, the elderly, women in their third trimester of pregnancy, people with peptic ulcer disease, heart arrhythmias (except when the heart rate is too slow), and seizures.

Do not share this medication with anyone. It should be used only under the advice of physician.

What You Should Know:

Do not take or discontinue any medications, whether prescription or over-the-counter, without first discussing it with your doctor while taking theophylline. This includes herbal products.

Promptly report signs and symptoms of toxicity to your health care provider.

Common Side Effects:

Common side effects that generally don't require medical attention include:
  • headache
  • insomnia
  • anxiety, restlessness, irritability
  • diarrhea
  • more frequent urination
  • shakiness, tremors

If these side effects don't go away, or become bothersome, contact your health care provider as soon as possible.

Serious Side Effects:

The following, more serious side effects should be reported to your health care provider right away:
  • symptoms of an allergic reaction, including severe itching, skin rash, hives, swelling of the face, lips or tongue
  • nausea and vomiting
  • rapid heartbeat, or feeling like your heart skips a beat
  • feeling like you're going to faint, dizziness, falls
  • fever
  • seizures

This is not a complete list of possible side effects. There could be more. Contact your health care provider for more information about side effects of theophylline.

Drug Interactions:

The following drugs may interact with theophylline:
  • adenosine
  • allopurinol
  • aminoglutethimide
  • caffeine
  • cimetidine
  • disulfiram
  • ephedrine
  • fluvoxamine
  • interferon
  • isoproterenol
  • lithium
  • anxiety medications
  • sleep medications
  • cold medicines
  • medications used for shortness of breath
  • methotrexate
  • pentoxifylline
  • certain antibiotics or anti-infectives
  • certain drugs for irregular heart beats
  • certain seizure medications
  • certain drugs used for surgery
  • sulfinpyrazone
  • tacrine

This is not a complete list of drug-to-drug interactions. Talk to your health care provider before taking this drug to discuss your current medications.

What to Do In Case of Overdose:

If you think you may have taken an overdose of theophylline, contact a poison control center immediately or go to the nearest emergency room.
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